Children’s picture books by South Asian writers and publishers focused on contemporary South Asian and diasporic culture are increasing in number. Their audiences are both cosmopolitan anglophone children growing up in South Asia’s metropolises as well as children in the diaspora. Unlike the mythological comics that focused on a glorious and essentially Hindu past that the parents of the current generation of kindergartners might have grown up with, these books offer a diverse set of themes and narrative lines. The books discussed here are a sampling of that growing genre.
Bilal Cooks Dal, written by Aisha Saeed and illustrated by Anoosha Syed, is a charming narrative of a young South Asian boy growing up in the West whose non-South Asian friends are introduced to daal, a staple of South Asian cuisine. Bilal’s father calls the boy and his friends into the house from their playtime to help start cooking rather early in the day. Bilal tells his friends that good daal takes time to cook. The kids go in and the narrative introduces them to different lentils and spices and the daal is begun for its long, slow cooking. The kids go out to play for several hours and Bilal’s friends constantly wonder if the daal is ready. When Bilal’s father calls them in, the kids go in to watch the daal being seasoned with onion, ginger, and lemon. The group then sits down to eat a delicious meal that they all enjoy. Importantly, this narrative shows a father cooking with his son and does not reinforce patriarchal ideas of women in the kitchen. The friends are multiracial and the daal is neither exotic nor weird. South Asian parents would welcome this book for their young kids who are often self-conscious about their cuisine and experience prejudice from peers about food that looks and smells funny. For non-South Asians, this book offers the chance to introduce children to global cuisine.
The Yellow Suitcase, written by Meera Sriram and illustrated by Meera Sethi, takes on a difficult topic — grief and loss. Asha travels to India with her yellow suitcase that is often filled with gifts for her grandmother when she arrives in India and then filled with gifts and memories when she returns to the US. This trip, however, follows grandmother’s death and Asha finds herself experiencing funeral rites and grieving relatives. The book follows Asha’s own grief at the loss of her grandmother, her attempts to understand that loss, her experience with her parents’ grief, and the place of memories in her healing process.
The book is poignant and takes on a heavy topic with a light but honest touch that is appropriate for elementary school age children. The narrative does not offer religious platitudes and is secular in its approach to death and grief. This book is a much needed one for South Asians living abroad who find themselves dealing with death and grief with their young children.
Chitra Soundar and Poonam Mistry’s books, You’re Safe with Me and You’re Snug with Me, both illustrated by Poonam Mistry, are great bedtime reading books for young children. The first focuses on baby animals in the jungle that are frightened by a raging storm, and Mother Elephant comforts them and explains the scary elements of the storm such as the wind bringing seeds from faraway lands and the rain helping the seeds grow and keeping the forest ecosystem thriving. The constant refrain in the narrative is that the children are safe with her.
The second book, You’re Snug With Me, takes the readers to the polar regions and mama bear explains her landscape to the young ones as they hibernate in the winter and await the Spring. The narrative also speaks to the importance of snow- packs and environmental stewardship to preserve the planet, and this book is a good one to introduce young readers to these concepts. These books are not particularly South Asian in their themes but the rich illustrations by Mistry are distinctively South Asian. She draws upon colors and styles that remind one of textile prints and use a rich and bright palette. Educational and comforting, these books will be a good addition to a young child’s collection.
The two Farmer Falgu books are also by Chitra Soundar, illustrated by Kanika Nair and published by the well-known Karadi Tales company. These books are part of a series in which Farmer Falgu takes trips to the Kumbh Mela (a Hindu religious festival) in Allahabad at the confluence of holy rivers and a trip to the Rajasthan kite festival. Both narratives celebrate these traditions and also include in Falgu’s journey some of the obstacles he encounters and which then get resolved either serendipitously ( a delayed train in Allahabad) or ingenuity ( making a new kite to replace ones damaged and lost in a storm.)
These are good narratives to introduce children to Indian festivals, but in current Hindutva India, these books focus on predominantly Hindu holidays. The location of the Kumbh Mela in Allahabad which the Hindu fundamentalist government renamed Prayagraj to erase the city’s Islamic history raises some troubling questions about contextualizing these narratives in a secular and democratic manner. To give the author credit, she does this subtly in one of the narratives where Falgu and his daughter are accompanied by their Muslim friend, Ahmed, to the kite festival. The story of the Kumbh Mela is, unfortunately, very Hinduism-emphasized which will require secular and progressive parents to contextualize the narrative for their young ones.
This selection of picture books for a young audience offers both South Asians and non-South Asians an opportunity to engage their children in stories and cultures of South Asia. Some of these narratives resonate beyond the South Asian community as well since they address themes of inclusivity, grief and loss, and environmental stewardship. As always, parents need to actively engage their children in dialogue over these narratives and ensure that they provide context along with stories at bedtime.
Aisha Saeed. Bilal Cooks Daal. Illustrated by Anoosha Syed. New York:Simon & Schuster/Salam Reads, 2019.
Meera Sriram. The Yellow Suitcase. Illustrated by Meera Sethi. Oklahoma City: Penny Candy Books, 2019.
Chitra Soundar. You’re Safe with Me. Illustrated by Poonam Mistry. London: Lantana Publishing, 2018.
Chitra Soundar. You’re Snug with Me. Illustrated by Poonam Mistry. London: Lantana Publishing, 2018.
Chitra Soundar. Farmer Falgu Goes to the Kumbh Mela. Illustrated by Kanika Nair. Karadi Tales, 2017.
Chitra Soundar. Farmer Falgu Goes Kite Flying. Illustrated by Kanika Nair. Karadi Tales, 2018.